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M|O Perspectives

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Top 5 Challenges Building Owners Face in 2021

March 11th, 2021

As the world has turned upside-down, building owners are facing new and unprecedented challenges in protecting and leveraging their business assets. We’ll cover some of the most common questions we are seeing right here.

Ultimately we hope that finding common ground with other property owners, managers and investors will provide insight for future planning. Better yet, perhaps your business will begin to uncover new value in the changes and enhancements required along the way.

1. Space Optimization

How can I reconfigure my unused or under-utilized spaces to maximize rent or re-use?

A great place to start is by talking to city officials to confirm how your space is officially zoned and what a space-change or use-change proposal might require in terms of approvals, construction planning and timing. It’s also important to assess the existing space for key elements like egress, ventilation, structural loading, and utilities.

Lately, we’ve been asked to support a variety of clients with all kinds of space-usage support, from researching city-specific codes to assessing existing spaces for fresh design options to running a phased project through the holistic lens of a professional architect.

For example, we recently helped a client explore converting unused ground-floor retail space at a mixed-use apartment complex into additional loft-style apartment units. Whether it’s a shuttered coffee shop or yoga studio, reassessing vacant spaces for new revenue-generating use can turn a potential negative into a positive.

2. Density for Distancing

How can I reimagine my densely configured office area to allow for proper spacing and distancing?

As you may know, tech companies are infamous for packing in people, with as little as 2 feet between desks. That’s not enough breathing room for staffers to feel safe right now — and may not be functional for the post-pandemic future of office space, either. It’s time to think creatively, taking into account human movement patterns like “passive travel” and safe “route following.”

Recently, Marx|Okubo has been engaged in discussions and considerations for office-space consultations, from initial architectural assessments to structural, MEP, and fire protection recommendations. For example, for space planning, we have looked at staggering desks so employees face one another, but are spaced with plexiglass dividers.

Other options include movable, modular furniture, less-occupied “pods,” or smaller working areas with wide berths. Less dense configuration also applies to corridors and restrooms, which could lead to shifting men’s and women’s single-occupancy restrooms to unisex bathrooms.

3. Indoor-Outdoor Evolution

How can I create more flexible spaces where residents and tenants will feel comfortable spending time?

Whether you’re a restaurant owner or are considering acquiring a residential property, you’re going to have to rethink occupant improvements entirely. This is the new reality, and there are plenty of creative solutions that can add new value to your business or property.

One emerging trend is turning more spaces into indoor-outdoor areas through the use of folding or roll-up doors or windows. This modification applies at storefront retail, but also to any space, from offices to condo common areas, where people need new ways to congregate safely.

Case in point: One client we recently assisted was pursuing the purchase of an apartment complex because of its great location. But also of post-pandemic interest was the building's numerous common areas. Why? Because this buyer could see the potential of flexibility — turning indoor spaces to outdoor living areas with the relatively-simple addition of accordion-style doors.

4. HVAC and Building Systems

How can I make sure my working and living environments are as safe and sterile as possible?

The continual exploration of effective and safe building systems ranges from turning an HVAC system up at a higher CFM to no-touch elevator controls. For existing building owners, knowing how to effectively retrofit these systems — and at what cost — is top of mind.

This may be something as simple as installing antibacterial surfaces for door pulls to using as much outside air as possible inside a building as recommended by ASHRAE. For example, in mild climates, it’s possible to run outside air much of the time, with little heating or cooling needed. New research suggests that extreme indoor temperatures may make people more susceptible to catching diseases.

Filtration is a little trickier and may involve greater pressure drops from high-efficiency filtration to maintain proper airflow. For example, if you have room in your cooling system, you could add a thicker filter for greater surface area, creating the same efficiency with lower pressure drop. Likewise, HVAC maintenance staff and practices will have a huge impact going forward.

We’ve found that when helping owners update building systems it’s critical to look at the whole picture — connecting the dots, identifying high-priority overhauls, bridging the understanding gap between owners and people on the ground like maintenance staff and property managers, and helping all parties understand what needs to be done.

5. Healthy Re-openings

Among the many challenges facing real estate owners and operators today, perhaps the most relevant is how to best to prepare to reopen properties. To do this most effectively, you’ll need a plan that takes into account the intricate relationships between building systems.

While we covered some of this earlier in the pandemic, we suggest that another helpful place to start is a professional comparison of the two most common healthy-building certifications: Fitwell versus WELL. Each building is different, so following the most appropriate guidance and obtaining healthy building certifications may put tenants who are thinking about reoccupying spaces more at ease.

You’ll want to choose a certification that complements your priorities and time requirements, as well as your project scope, schedule, budget, team and sophistication level. We usually recommend a phased approach for re-opening, which typically includes preliminary screening, reopening recommendations, and system and design modifications.

From optimizing space (and revenue) to reopening in ways that make good business sense, 2021 will inevitably bring new challenges to buildings — and their owners. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Sandy Blair, VP, with questions and concerns as you learn to tackle the inevitable.

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Marx|Okubo is a national architecture/engineering/construction consulting firm that works with real estate owners, investors and lenders—at every point of the property lifecycle—to evaluate their building projects, solve complex challenges and implement tailored solutions. We help clients understand their projects’ complexities, so they can make more informed decisions and, ultimately, mitigate their risk.